Hawker Centres in Singapore – 101 Guide to the Best Street Food 

Having Singapore street food is one of the quintessential experiences when visiting the island. When we talk about Singapore street (hawker) food, it spans a history of over two centuries. It’s origins can be traced to the early 1800s when Singapore became a significant transportation and commercial port city. As a port-city with a rapidly increasing immigrant population, it soon become a place for different cultures and ethnic and religious groups with specific culinary preferences. Many of the early immigrants were living in shophouses. These were shared spaces which were often cramped and unhygenic. Itinerant street vendors and street food sellers soon appeared to sell affordable food to the working class. The advantages were plentiful: a great variety of fresh and cheap meals ready-to-serve and handy, familiar flavours. 

 

 

By definition, a hawker centre is a specific food market that brings together food stalls held by different cooks and sellers called hawkers. The ‘first’ hawker centre, People’s Park Food Market started as a humble ‘food shelter’ in 1923.  

 

Over time, especially after World War II, given the high unemployment rate the number of food stalls increased so much that some regulations needed to be put in place. The scarce access to water and the presence of rodents and other harmful dangers have determined the authorities’ involvement. The hawkers had to receive a licence and follow some hygiene rules. Registration of hawkers was carried out in the 1960s and between 1971 and 1986, the government embarked on a building program to construct a dedicated space for the street hawkers.   

 

 

How many hawker centres are there in Singapore? 

 

If you wonder how many hawker centres exist in Singapore, you should know that over 119 hawker centres located across the island, with more being planned to cater to the increasing population. Don’t worry, you will always find a hawker centre around you. Since 2020, the Singapore hawker culture has been part of the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which just goes to show how they are such an integral part of everyday life.  

 

 

 

Importance of Hawker Centres in Singapore 

Singapore is cultural melting pot of ethnicities, languages, and religious beliefs. This can be seen in the hawker centres where it is a place where people can find food of the different ethnic communities and dietary preferences all in one space.  

 

Having street food in Singapore is a must-do in Singapore: this is one of the most affordable and delicious places you can eat in Singapore without giving up on their culinary experience. For approximately S$7 (US$5), you may enjoy at any time of the day hawker food near you, more than often cooked by a small family business from ingredients acquired from the fresh produce market. 

 

The hawker centre includes the social dimension of a meal. Families gather for a meal at the same table in a hawker centre – from the youngest to the oldest member, sharing their day’s experience. This is a place bustling with locals and expats, office worker, businessman, regardless of age, ethnicity and dietary requirements. Think of hawker centres as a communal dining hall, where people of different languages, ethnic backgrounds, or religions talk in the Singaporean lingua franca: food. 

 

What Exactly is the Hawker Centre Experience? 

 

To choose the best hawker centre for you, you have to decide what kind of local food you want to try. Different hawker centres are known for different specialties. Don’t hesitate to ask your friends, host, guide, and even the taxi driver for advice. Local people always know best where you may find the authentic flavours and, one might add, for the right price. 

 

The first impression you get when you enter a hawker centre can be overwhelming. It seems complicated to choose between dozens of hawker stalls. Pro-tip: By looking at the length of the queue of people lining up at the stall, that is where the food is most popular. Most of the times, the food is going to be good.  

 

As soon as you decide where to buy from, you should stand in line. Depending on whether you want to lose yourself in the appetising buffet of food or to keep exploring, you can sit at the table or do a take-away/out. If you want to dine-in, first you should look for seats at the tables. Even if you are alone, you don’t have to stress. It is enough to leave a package of tissues or another personal object (name cards, umbrellas are the most common items) on the chair, this is a form of seat reservation and the others will know that someone has occupied that place. 

 

After you order, if you provide the table number, the food will be brought to you. If the hawker stall has the mark “self-service”, you should wait until your food is ready and pick it up yourself. Before ordering, however, make sure you have enough cash with you because usually, you cannot pay for hawker food with credit cards. 

 

If you can’t find a free table, don’t worry! You can sit without disturbing anyone on an unoccupied seat after, of course, asking permission. Dinner with strangers (or your newfound friends) can be fun and you might learn something new about the city as well! 

 

After you have bought your food, you may wish to buy a beverage from one of the many drink stalls in the hawker centre. The possibilities are endless…be it bottled water, soda, or alcoholic options like beer. After you’ve eaten, you have to return the used bowls/plates/cutlery at the self-return shelves. SInce  September 2021, it is now mandatory to return trays and crockery. Not doing so might incur a fine.  

 

Which Are Some of the Famous Hawker Centres in Singapore? 

 

One of the most famous hawker centres in Singapore, both for the tasty and varied food and the reasonable prices, is the Maxwell Food Centre, situated within the Chinatown neighbourhood. Its location assures a continuous flux of customers. For this reason, the market opening hours are very generous: the food centre opens daily at 8am until late.   

 

If you want to visit the oldest market in Singapore and taste nice hawker food in a historical building, Lau Pa Sat is the right choice. This hawker centre dates from the 1970s, but the settlement was the first fish market in Singapore in the first quarter of the 19th century. The unique thing about this market is that it offers the unique experience of the satay (grilled meat skewers) under the stars. Every night at 7pm, a street (Boon Tat Street) is closed off to traffic and magically transform into “Satay Street” – a row of approximately 10 satay stalls will be serving you delicious sticks of meat and seafood. There’s nothing like this in Singapore. 

 

On the hawker centres Singapore map, Tiong Bahru Market occupies a special place as one of the oldest hawker centres in Singapore. The building has a double functionality: the hawker centre is on the 2nd floor while the ground floor is a produce (wet) market where locals will do their daily grocery. You may spend a few hours here walking along the two floors of the building. 

 

If you visit Chinatown, the nearest food centre is the Chinatown Complex Food Centre, the biggest market in Singapore. It hosts over 260 food stalls, offering tasty street food at unbeatable prices. 

 

Not far from Orchard Road (a retail and dining paradise), you may taste different cuisines in another famous hawker centre in Singapore:  Newton food centre (featured on the the Crazy-Rich-Asians movie). When you are there, the Singapore carrot cake at stall #01-28 is a must! 

 

Other popular hawker food centres in Singapore include the Old Airport Road Food Centre or the Amoy Street Food Centre. 

 

The Must-Try Hawker Centre Dishes 

 

If you like Chinese street foods, you must try some Hainanese Chicken Rice, one of the most popular dishes in hawker stalls in Singapore. The main ingredients are poached chicken meat, rice cooked in a wok and boiled in chicken soup, and different garnishes (cucumbers, bok choy, coriander), accompanied by soy sauce and a spicy sauce made of chilli and garlic. 

 

Char Kway Teow is famous in the hawkers’ market. The dish could be tasted in several sizes, your spice-level, or your favourite flavours: it is a rice or wheat noodle dish stir-fried with seafood: prawns, squid, crab or lobster meat, cuttlefish. You may serve it at any meal, including breakfast. 

 

If you want to taste an unforgettable flavour, you should try laksa, a type of food that shouldn’t be missing from any Singapore food experience. Laksa is a noodle soup with chicken or seafood, curry paste, and coconut milk. 

 

You can’t visit a hawker fare without trying satay, a kind of Indonesian food prepared from poultry, pork, or beef marinated in spices and then grilled or skewered. There are also vegetarian versions made from soy/mushroom. The secret ingredient to complete the satay experience is the peanut dipping sauce. 

 

Every famous hawker centre in Singapore lists an impressive menu where you can easily find dishes for all your friends: meat, fish, or veggie dishes (Fried Carrot Cake), noodles (Ba Chor Mee), soups (Bak Kut Teh), and tasty desserts. 

 

Hawker Culture Preservation – The Singapore Challenge 

 

The National Environment Agency identified and published the most critical challenges faced by hawker centres and vendors. Among them is the challenge in attracting new vendors or keeping the younger generation interested in the family business. To this, the Singapore government leads in programmes focused on supporting the food culture in Singapore. For example, the Hawkers Development Programme (HDP) is developed to equip new and existing hawkers with the skills and competencies to run a hawker business.  

 

However, preserving hawker culture is not solely the responsibility of the Singapore government. It is part of humanity’s cultural heritage. We could all contribute by promoting, consuming, and, not least, support the local artisans preserving Singaporean street food. 

 

The Singapore street food experience is not to be missed. With this understanding the hawker culture, please put it down in your list of things to do when visiting the city and try dishes cooked according to traditional recipes that has been passed down from generation to generation. 

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